States endorse national forum of state water and irrigation ministers to focus on water-related matters. Will it have teeth?
The Union government is trying to drum up support from the state governments for the proposed Water Framework Law and allay their apprehensions that the Centre is usurping their rights under the Constitution. At the first meeting of the National Forum of Water Resources and Irrigation Ministers in Delhi on Wednesday, Union water resources minister, Harish Rawat, spoke of a collaborative approach as past attempts at foisting Central government policies on states have failed. In contrast to the earlier approaches, the state ministers endorsed the setting up of the national forum which would focus on general water related issues in the country. The forum is expected to be the instrument for sharing of ideas, and facilitating support to new and innovative ideas, for better water governance.
It remains to be seen what political space the forum will occupy. There is already a Water Resources Council headed by the prime minister that takes top level policy decisions, such as approving the National Water Policy and, presumably, the draft Water Framework Law, which is meant to operationalise the water policy . This is a lower level forum that may be engaged with the nuts-and-bolts of the water sector, comprising as it does of the state ministers of water resources and irrigation. It will be a permanent forum, with the provision that half of its members would retire after every two years, and would be replaced by the ministers from states/Union Territories, from other regions in the country.
Earlier, in December 2012, states had said they were opposed to any encroachment of their Constitutional rights by the Centre. Therefore, this meeting was aimed at assuaging their fears and also smoothing the acceptance of the framework law and other pieces of legislation such as the River Basin Management Bill. Rawat said these would be drafted in a way to protect the rights and powers of states. They would be finalised only after threadbare deliberations and consensus. Water is a state subject under the Indian Constitution, and the Centre can legislate only in certain specific instances.